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How Modesty Empowers

Is encouraging women to conform to the diminutive dress standards of Instagram leading them to a place of freedom and power - or just the opposite?
Photo by Giorgio Trovato on Unsplash

Several months back, a Twitter firestorm erupted when Sports Illustrated featured plus-size model Yumi Nu on its cover. What stood out to me was that, when confronted with yet another hypersexualized image of a woman being used to hock swimwear and magazines, the only important question for most Americans was how attractive (or not) they found the model. 

Whether one cries “yes” or “no” to celebrating plus-sized models, the upshot is that women are still being told that their bodies are what matter most. We are inundated with images of women in various states of dress, subjecting themselves to public adoration or scrutiny, all in an effort to drive some form of consumption. Sometimes, as with pornography, it’s women’s bodies themselves that are the product. 

For this reason, I’ve been taken aback by recent claims online that modesty sexualizes women. We’re told that teachings that emphasize conservative dress standards control women by shaming them into believing that their bodies cause men to have inappropriate thoughts. The implicit message is that it’s only by rejecting modest dress that one can escape this shame and act in a truly self-directed manner.

Does it seem like the young women baring their bodies according to the dictates of Instagram have escaped into freedom?

I would ask: does it seem like the young women baring their bodies according to the dictates of Instagram have escaped into freedom? Are these women and girls acting in a truly self-chosen manner? Or has embracing the pressures of our wider cultureand its demeaning, reductive, and dangerous messages about how women obtain their sense of valuebeen rebranded as liberation? Who actually benefits from this shift in mindset?

It is certainly true that women are not ultimately responsible for men’s thoughts, and I can understand why some women experience knee-jerk reactions to reminders of the value of modesty. And yet, we know that there is a connection between bodies and sexuality because the media and advertisers exploit that connection every day, reinforcing the idea that for women, sex appeal is their most valuable currency. If our discussions about modesty obscure this connection, it will not be to the advantage of our girls and women. Refusing to ask any thoughtful questions about why girls and women dress in certain ways in today’s society signals we’re missing the heart of why modesty matters—to help girls and women withstand relentless societal pressures to derive their sense of self-worth from their sex appeal.

I had very little understanding of the concept of modesty before joining the Church as a teenager. In the early days of my conversion, I mostly just dressed the way my friends had. I was not necessarily choosing revealing clothing with some ulterior motive to be more sexually appealing, but of course, even as a teenager, I was not ignorant to the fact that attractive women have more of society’s graces bestowed upon them. The predominant narrative presented to women through social media, popular shows, movies, and even music is that being sexually desirable sets you apart in important ways, even from other women. You can fast-track your sense of validation by dressing in ways that prioritize your physical appeal. More and more influencers are multiplying this message with an additional refrain: if anyone tries to stop you from obtaining validation in this way, it’s only because they want to shame and control you.

From a combination of church discussions and increased awareness that my own dress was incongruent with what the girls and women around me wore, my attire shifted, and by the time I enrolled at BYU at 17, my dress easily conformed with university standards. Of course, at some level, this change was driven by a desire to fit in with my new community. The desire to fit in is universal and certainly not limited to religious communities. But I also know that wasn’t the sole, or even most important, reason for the way I was choosing to dress.

You see, I’d stood alone in dressing rooms wrestling with questions about whether to buy a flattering but slightly too revealing garment. In those moments, I really didn’t see myself being ostracized for pushing modesty boundaries. On the contrary, even within a church context, I thought I’d actually find more approval and that it would outweigh whatever stigma I might encounter. But I sensed that my real internal conflict stemmed from a different question: to what sources am I turning for a sense of worth, and where would God have me find it? I realized that perhaps the dress limitations prescribed by church teachings were, in fact, intended to help me confront this very crucial question and to set me on a path toward a more transcendent sense of self-worth. And I came to appreciate that the higher teachings that motivated dressing modestly are ultimately about separating one’s sense of self-worth from the ever-changing dictates of fashion and the empty promises of our cultural obsessions with sex appeal.

Women can then decide whether popular trends that further undress them are leading them anywhere they can find true self-worth and fulfillment.

By comparison, many popular voices online seem to see conforming to certain dress standards as merely an act of conformity. They see only the internalization of other peoples’ values. I believe the truth is much more complicated. All cultures, religious and otherwise, hold expectations for the individuals within them. As we mature, we will naturally chafe to discover that some of our expectations for ourselves originated outside of us. But another part of maturity is seeing this realization less as a threat and more as an opportunity. We now get to decide whether we will consciously adopt those expectations as our own. Simply rejecting standards, like modesty, can be just as much of a decision directed by external pressures, with the result that we have not escaped into more individual freedom but into another community with its own, often less clearly stated expectations.

In other words, rejecting modest dress does not necessarily mean we are acting with greater self-direction and power. How you look is still very much a priority, but the reasons are different. There are still rules for how to dress being pushed on Instagram or in popular entertainment; they just serve different purposes. Where empowerment can really occur is in the space of awareness of competing values between one’s faith and one’s larger community.  In that space, women can then decide whether popular trends that further undress them are leading them anywhere they can find true self-worth and fulfillment.  

Let’s stop pretending that laying aside aspirations and standards for dress is a newly enlightened path to freedom. And let’s stop telling our girls and young women that there’s something oppressive about principles that interfere with our ability to fit in with the world. These principles are an invitation to true freedomto letting go of the world’s expectations for us and obtaining treasures where neither moth nor rust can corrupt. In a world where women and men are hearing incessantly that the “worth of souls is great” if they look like this, I thank God for other voices reminding us that our value is intrinsic, eternal, and on a different plane entirely than the outfit we are wearing.

About the author

Meagan Kohler

Meagan Kohler is a Latter-day Saint wife, boy mom, writer, and occasional philosopher. She also writes on Substack at Mirabile Dictu.
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